The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: The Steelers will continue the process of deemphasizing the outside linebackers in coverage.
Explanation: For a long time now, the Steelers have damn near every year led the league in their outside linebackers among 3-4 teams dropping into coverage. But even within that scope, their numbers in that regard dropped significantly last year. Was they an aberration? The new norm? the process of deemphasizing it radically?
Given the continued and increasing emphasis on using five or more defensive backs on the field, the Steelers are only going to continue to use more and more four-man fronts. The coaching staff has also been talking about wanting to get to the quarterback with four rushers, and last year they finally started to make the turn in that direction.
That is why more than anything they were dropping their outside linebackers more. Because they were getting to the quarterback more. If you can get home, that’s the direction the coaches are going to want you to go, plain and simple.
T.J. Watt was the primary coverage outside linebacker, but in the past year, he also became their best pass rusher from the position, so he’s going to continue to be emphasized in that regard. They have the inside linebackers to cover the middle now.
It might be that the Steelers have moved into a defensive mindset in which the outside linebacker is no longer a critical part of their coverage looks, but, at best, they will maintain a status quo with respect to the percent of times that they drop into coverage. Simply because it’s a foundational piece of the zone blitz, which they continue to rely upon as much as any team in the NFL, even last season.
And even jumping on one year of data to call that anything than an incomplete data set is irresponsible. It’s entirely possible that the Steelers up their usage of the outside linebackers in coverage once again to reflect their more typical. Watt dropped about 22 percent of the time last year. In 2017, is was about 37 percent. I could easily see about 30 percent to two thirds setting in as the norm.